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Opinion | Another Working Mom, Ketanji Brown Jackson, May Join the Supreme Court

Whatever the reason, discussion of Judge Jackson’s bona fides as a working mother has been notably absent among Democrats, who have instead been focusing on the consequential nature of her nomination. But critically, those qualities have also made her a target of the right. Already, Republican leaders have sniped about Mr. Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman, ignoring — or, in the case of Tucker Carlson, challenging — her superlative credentials and record of public service. It will surely get worse as the confirmation process begins in earnest.

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Emphasizing Judge Jackson’s status as a working mother could enhance her already compelling story as the confirmation battle heats up. It certainly worked for Justice Barrett. In addition to using Justice Barrett’s motherhood to burnish her credentials and frame her nomination as pathbreaking — she was touted by President Donald Trump as “the first mother of school-aged children ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court” — Republicans also invoked her status as a mom as cover from attacks on her judicial philosophy and a confirmation process hastily conducted in the midst of a presidential election. Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, breezily dismissed claims that she would vote to dismantle the Affordable Care Act by noting that as “a mother of seven, Judge Barrett clearly understands the importance of health care.”

If the confirmation process is an opportunity to assess a prospective justice’s judicial philosophy and approach to the law, it is also a crucible for forging narratives about the nominee herself — narratives that may insulate the nominee from attacks in the moment and beyond. In response to a barrage of questions about his judicial philosophy, Chief Justice John Roberts famously cast himself as a kind of judicial umpire, neutrally calling balls and strikes. To this day, he is credited as an institutionally minded jurist who, despite his conservatism, is frequently at odds with the more ideological members of the court’s conservative bloc. Likewise, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated in the wake of the failed Merrick Garland nomination, was peppered with questions about his fidelity to the Trump administration. He cannily seized the opportunity to signal judicial independence and to distance himself from the president who nominated him.

In this regard, leaning into Judge Jackson’s status as a working mother could serve several ends, burnishing her impressive credentials and varied professional experiences while rebutting charges that diversity is the only reason for her nomination.

And critically, Judge Jackson could provide a compelling account of working motherhood. In a 2017 speech at the University of Georgia, she lamented the difficulties of reconciling her career with “the needs of children and family responsibilities.” For many years, she was, as she put it, “something of a professional vagabond, moving from place to place as family needs and circumstances changed.” While she may have made it to the top of her profession, the path was not always easy and her dazzling outcome not always assured.

Her ascent to the pinnacle of the legal profession is not just a testament to her brilliance and professional acumen. It also speaks to her grit, resilience and drive to succeed — admirable, relatable qualities that could overshadow the expected charges of identity politics.

As Democrats prepare for Judge Jackson’s confirmation, perhaps it is worth exploring the motherhood card. After all, recasting the nominee as both a legal superstar and an accomplished supermom has worked well before.

Melissa Murray is a professor of law at New York University.

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